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The Shapeshifter Series

Style: Average

Attitude: Take Care → Positive

In Brief: Children with extraordinary powers: telekenesis, shapeshifting, healing, telepathy, illusion, dowsing and pyrokenesis. Common and sometimes comical acceptance of dialogue with the dead. All the children are motherless for plot reasons. Friendship and support among the children and between them and their teachers. Occasional plot-related brutal or vindictive behaviour including an attempt to auction the gifted children into slavery.

Cover of The Shapeshifter Series

Author: Ali Sparkes

Series: Shapeshifter

Publisher: OUP

Published in: 2006

Age Range: Pre Teens

Period: Contemporary

Setting: The Cornish Coast & the Lake District

Genres:  AdventureSciFiThought-provoking


Characters:

  • Dax is a 12-year-old shapeshifter. He puts up with his stepmother's disdain and greed and with his father's distance. He has to make some difficult decisions about whom to trust in the unusual environment of the COLA school. He fights against his own inclination towards anger and jealousy.
  • Gideon is a telekinetic, high-spirited and cheerful. He's Dax's roommate and special friend. He's very close to his twin brother Luke who turns up unexpectedly, the more so after Luke suffers terribly at the hands of another and is left without the power of speech. Their apparent triplet Catherine is in fact a parasite who leeches power from all the other children and from some adults to gain the control she wants.
  • Lisa Hardman is the boys' friend, a standoffish girl from a rich family. She's in demand as a medium, constantly passing on messages from the spirit world but is also a powerful telepath and dowser.
  • Owen Hind is the secret service agent responsible for the children's safety. He has to tread a difficult line between his duty to his superiors and the responsibility he feels for the children he's looking after.

Synopsis:

In Finding the Fox, Dax Jones discovers that he can turn into a fox and learns that he is one of the Children of Limitless Ability (COLA), to be educated in a secret government school on the Cornish coast. There are children who can move objects with their mind, turn invisible, talk to the dead, create illusions, heal each other and more besides. The teachers themselves are human and caring, but the youngsters are aware that they are being observed by scientists and government agents with a view to their potential. An investigative journalist appears to be set on exposing the school’s secret, but Dax receives cryptic messages from a previous shapeshifter which leads him realise that the real threat is within the school. In Running the Risk, Gideon, Dax's best friend at the school, discovers that he has a twin brother Luke who has no apparent powers. And then their triplet sister Catherine emerges who turns out to be an evil parasite, taking power from the other children to leave them drained and to create a tidal wave which will drown the whole school. She is just prevented from doing this by Luke, who reveals his own power, but the two of them are swept away and presumed dead. We discover in Going to Ground that Catherine is alive and well and is draining Luke of his power to attack Gideon from far away. Dax, Gideon, Lisa and Mia go into hiding, joined by Dax’s ungifted but clever friend Clive, until forced into the open by government agents who consider them a threat until Gideon and Dax fight off one of Catherine's lethal attacks. By Dowsing the Dead, Lisa manages to pinpoint Luke’s location and therefore Catherine’s, leading to a rescue attempt which goes badly wrong when Catherine captures Dax in his falcon form. In the end she is captured and taken by the French Secret Service but we learn in Stirring the Storm that she manages to persuade a renegade from within the French ranks to enter into a deal with a traitor from within the COLA organisation to control the children’s powers by implants in order to auction them off to rich buyers. In saving his friends, Dax learns about the origins of all the COLA kids.

Notes:

A boy who can turn into a fox or a falcon; a girl who can heal with her touch; two brothers who can move objects with their minds; girls who channel messages from the Dead; a boy who can make sure people see things which aren’t there; a girl who can make sure people don’t see things which are there: these are some of the Children of Limitless Ability – COLA kids. Each of them motherless from a young age, they are sensed by Pauline Sartre, diviner and head of a special government-sponsored residential school, and brought there by Owen Hind, a Special Forces agent who’s responsible for their safety as well as teaching them about woodwork and backwoods craft. The children have normal lessons with long-suffering but sympathetic teachers and Development classes where they train in the use of their particular special powers. This is the backdrop to the Shapeshifter series from Ali Sparkes. (Technically the series title is “The Shapeshifter” but ‘the “The Shapeshifter” series’ is just too cumbersome to keep writing).

The books are accessible to any average pre-teen reader (the back jacket has a “9+” tag) although they are a slight cut above the norm in the way of vocabulary and structure. The stories are action-based and dialogue-driven but there are individual character arcs and multiple story threads running through the series. The just-adolescent characters are engaging and believable and the principal supporting characters have a certain depth to them.

Themes running through the series which might be of interest or concern to parents include: the children’s supernatural gifts; messages from the Dead; alien ancestry; a powerful and vindictive 12-year-old girl; children’s ability to trust adults; family difficulties; general themes of friendship, support and forgiveness; and particular instances of characters who knowingly fight against their passions for the sake of other people. In keeping with their just-adolescent ages, the young characters occasionally exhibit a very mild attraction towards one another, but it’s all school-disco stuff and is certainly not central to the plot. The children’s gifts include those which one might consider neutral: telepathy, telekenesis, pyrokenesis and various forms of mild hypnosis including a form of invisibility. In addition, though, we have the titular shapeshifting of Dax and the extensive dealings with the Dead principally via Lisa’s gifts – which also include dowsing and telepathy – and occasionally in dreams or visions to the others. With the exception of one aside where one of the characters dwells briefly on death and says that “we know there’s life afterwards unless Lisa’s a total fraud”, there’s no real enquiry into exactly what talking to the Dead means; it’s simply a plot device which brings in information which would otherwise be unavailable to the characters.

The series’ backstory – described only towards the end of the final book – concerns a Federation of benevolent aliens – the Quorat — who see our world as the next to join their peaceful union of worlds. They send women “Seeders” to marry men of our world so that their offspring will be gifted as their mothers were. (Biological compatibility is not discussed). Because of the environmental differences between the worlds, these mothers die soon after their children are born and rarely have more than one child. And so the COLA kids are all motherless and are almost all only children. This is all revealed as the series nears its climax, so it’s really a “gifted children” series rather than an “alien intervention” series.

The most disturbing character is Catherine, the “third twin” of Gideon and Luke. We discover late on that she’s a form of parasite, implanted in the boys’ alien mother by unspecified means. We find out early in the series that she is able and willing to leech power and skills from other humans, gifted or not, leaving them increasingly lethargic. But she seems unnecessarily vindictive, given that the other children are as alien as she and the same age. First she drains their powers from all the COLAs, prevented finally only by Luke. She then kidnaps Luke and – in a quite distasteful scene recounted later – renders him physically and mentally incapable of speech while draining his own lifeforce to use as her own. When Dax tries to rescue Luke, Catherine uses Luke’s telekenesis to nail Dax’s falcon body to a windmill leaving him crucified there. Finally, Catherine is the driving force behind the scheme to inhibit the children’s powers artificially and have them sold as slaves to rich buyers.

While the other children use their powers benevolently, the climactic showdown on board a North Sea oilrig does see an otherwise mild character using lethal force which few suspected she could muster to kill a deadly enemy. It’s a fairly clear case of self-defence, but it’s startling nonetheless.

One of the more complex characters is Owen Hind, a special forces agent who has a particular rapport with Dax. He teaches the children woodcraft but his real task is to protect the children. As a government agent he is answerable to his superiors, but on occasion finds that in conscience he has to act differently. Dax wants to trust him but has several moments when he feels – sometimes rightly, sometimes not – that Owen’s duty to the authorities is outweighing his duty to the children he protects. At the series end, Owen appears to sacrifice his life for Dax and the other children. The government doesn’t get an especially good billing: it’s represented for the most part by faceless and apparently amoral scientists, and at worst by a renegade who’s using the others to acquire control over the gifted children.

For reasons explained above, none of the children knows his or her natural mother. Some of the families we learn about have some difficulties: Mia’s father is an alcoholic who allows her to heal him, not without affecting her at the same time; Dax’s stepmother and her young daughter are mean and grasping, and his father is distant, spending a long time away working on the North Sea oil platforms; some of the children are fostered or adopted.

While there are caveats, the series’ heart is in the right place. The school staff, those with powers and those without, have the children’s best interests at heart and are humanly and amusingly used to dealing with the problems brought on by outbursts of special abilities. The children form friendships and mild rivalries in the normal way and work to help each other over their various problems.

One small but important trait of Ali Sparkes’ characters appears here as elsewhere: a determination to do the right thing for its own sake, to overcome an inclination to anger or cowardice or selfishness for non-utilitarian ends. It’s relatively easy to find characters elsewhere who are physically brave and persevering, who fight enemies on behalf of their friends, or on behalf of some perceived good. But it’s rare to find those who will fight their own bad inclinations. Dax, here, knows that he’s jealous of Gideon’s new-found twin brother. And he does his best to overcome the moodiness which that jealousy brings for the sake of Gideon and Luke. Earlier, he keeps control of pent-up anger when Gina his selfish stepmother treats him badly. In the final act Spook – Dax’s school enemy – is big enough to overcome his antipathy in order to help Dax and ultimately the other children.

Overall, there are several issues which might cause concern to parents especially parents of children as young as nine, the publisher’s target audience. But the series as a whole and the majority of the characters have the right intention.

Themes:

  • Mediums: can we really speak to the dead?
  • Superpowers: which are more likely?
  • Self-defence: when do we have the right to kill someone?

Sunday 23rd May 2010